Word of the Day – “überlegen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll look at the meaning of

überlegen

 

Überlegen is a fairly important word that you get to hear often in daily conversation and yet it kind of flies under the radar of many learners of German. Why? Because it can mean to think (about) as well as to decide and even to come up with  and either of those words has a more “obvious” translation… denken /nachdenken and entscheiden.  So is überlegen just another of those dictionary inflating, redundant synonyms that keep our languages from being nicely consistent… ( of course I’m kidding… synonyms are double plus good). Could we for example simply replace entscheiden  by überlegen? We can’t. Why not? Well… because the following 5 letters:

g r a m m a

are not enough to explain it we’ll  just look at lots of examples of überlegen and find out this way. 

Überlegen consist of 2 parts – the basic verb legen and the prefix über. Legen basically means to lay and to put and naturally many of you are now like “Hey what is the difference between legen and stellen. I thought stellen is to put.” And without going into that too deep let me tell one rule of thumb to decide whether it is legen or stellen in German.

  • If you legen something, you can’t tip it over.
  • If you can tip it over then you have gestellt it.

So if you put a cushion on the couch or a book on the table you can do either … legen and stellen.
Anyway… the other part of überlegen is the prefix über as in over as in above. You might have heard that über is one of the rare prefixes that can be both – separable and non-separable. And there are 2 überlegens actually. There is überLEGen whith a strong link and ÜBERlegen with a weak link. However, the one with the strong link is the interesting one so let’s get the other one out of the way right now… ÜBERlegen technically means to lay something over someone. But it is really rarely used. Almost never.

If you’re interested, here are some examples from linguee.com. But trust me, you do not need this word.
So…. the über we will be dealing in the rest of the post is NOT separable so it behaves like ent, ver or be.

All right. So… we basically have to look at 2 different überlegens. A plain one, and a self-referential one. And (worst pun ever approaching) just as every journey to Germany starts at the airport so will we start (here it comes) with the plain one (get it? Like… plane… so awful).

Überlegen

Überlegen without anything, in nerd speak called intransitive, means to think. But a very specific to think. Not the more philosophical one. That would be denken.

Überlegen is also NOT to think as in to believe or to reckon. Once again, denken or, maybe even better, glauben are the words you need.

So what kind of thinking IS überlegen? It to think as in to search your mind for a result…

Now, some of you may already know nachdenken , which is another German word that can be used for this kind of thinking (check out nachdenken here). And indeed those 2 words are fairly close in meaning.

However, there are 2 big difference between the nachdenken and überlegen. The first one is a grammatical difference. You can nachdenken about a thing. This does NOT work with überlegen. Überlegen cannot take an object, it can only take an action. Here’s what I mean:

Neither of the examples works with überlegen because we are thinking about things.

  • Ich überlege über den Film.

This is just wrong. So when or what can we actually überlegen? Basically actions especially questions.

And this leads us to the second difference between nachdenken and überlegen. We could call it the goal or the scope. Überlegen pretty much always deals with one specific question… and a rather everyday question at that. Where did I put my phone? What can I do tonight? Should I go there or not? What do I want to eat? What should I wear tonight?
You cannot really überlegen “What is the purpose of our existence?” because there isn’t really a definite answer. This would be something you can nachdenken about, you can ponder or reflect upon. And speaking of pondering and reflecting, you can just nachdenken for hours… sit in your chair.

You cannot überlegen like that. That is not to say that überlegen always has to be short.

This is fine. You could just as well use nachdenken here and there are many situations in which either verb, nachdenken and überlegen, is fine but the more mundane your question gets the more out of place nachdenken sounds

  • I reflected upon the question where I’d put my phone…. this just doesn’t match to me.

So, quick summary: überlegen is basically thinking about a somewhat mundane question in order to get to a result. That sounds like a rather narrow meaning but hey… mundane every day questions are the ones we spend lots and lots of thought on so in fact this überlegen is used frequently as you can see here:

ueberlegen-vs-nachdenken

Seems like überlegen gives nachdenken a run for its money. To be fair though, more then half of the uses are probably on account of the other überlegen… the self-referential one.

Sich überlegen

Now, before we talk about the meaning of this we need to talk about the self reference because it is in Dative. So it is an indirect self reference.  It is rather to myself than myself.

  • Ich überlege mir… (not mich, mich would be doubleplusnunright)
  • Du überlegst dir...
  • Er/sie/es überlegt sich

If you use the direct self reference, the accusative one

  • Ich überlege mich…

it is totally wrong and I am not sure whether people would understand that. Think of it as the same concept like in to buy.

All right. Now… the difference in meaning to the first überlegen is actually not that big. But while the first überlegen was focusing on the act of reaching a result (to think) the sich-überlegen one is about the having the result. And that’s why it can mean to decide.

The last example is kind of hard to translate without loosing the tone. The German version sounds really not offensive or demanding at all. It almost feels like a question. Anyway …
Now, what’s the difference between this überlegen and entscheiden, which also means to decide? Well, überlegen implies the whole process of reaching that decision by thinking while entscheiden, the more “obvious” translation,  is really just making the decision.

Using überlegen implies that will think about it and then decide, while entscheiden can be done on a whim.
But sich überlegen is not limited to decisions. Remember! Überlegen alone was used to think about everyday questions. Some of those questions call for a decision but others need you to come up with a solution. And so that’s why sich überlegen can mean to come up with stuff.

So you have thought about the question  (überlegen) and now you have a result. Let’s look at both words back to back.

So… having that indirect self-reference (for myself) in there changes what you do from simply thinking about the question into reaching a result by thinking about the question. Let’s do one more.

So in the first example the speaker wants the other person to think about the whole scenario for a second (not for day, that would be nachdenken then), while in the second dialog, the person wants a decision.
And now we come to the big question:

Isn’t German a real joy?

Nah, I’m kidding of course. I’m sure this can be a little confusing. I mean, why does a word that consists of to lay and above take on those meanings anyway? Well, apparently überlegen originally  meant to lay stuff above one another and that somehow evolved into adding up things… as in math. And from there it is not that far from thinking about a question or reaching a decision or result. And that even explains the weird self reference… you add it up for yourself kind of.

Now, before we wrap up we need to talk another überlegen, and which word you compare it with this überlegen is superior literally … like… it translates to superior.

And of course, as any language that is spoken by real people I suppose, we do have more superior in German. It is used very often in context of sports.

However, the triumph was short lived for just a week later they lost… against the  superiorerer team.
Seriously though, do you have this phrasing in your mother tongue too? I’d really like to know, so please leave me a comment about that :).
Oh and as we’re at it… the opposite of überlegen is, you guessed it, unterlegen.

All right… let me überlegen if that is all… hmmmm… yes, I think it is. So we’re done for today. This was our word of the day überlegen. It is thinking about the everyday questions of life and when you add a mir or dir or that kind of stuff, it turns into decide or come up with. It is a word you’ll definitely hear people say. Should you use it too? Well, überleg’s dir :).
If you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

for members :)

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Jurgen
Jurgen

Ich habe mal überlegt ob ich hier jetzt noch etwas schreiben würde da mir eigentlich alles klar ist und ich dieses mal keine Fragen habe. Also habe ich lange darüber nachgedacht und mir überlegt dass ich es doch tue nur um dich auf einem Tippfehler aufmerksam zu machen:

“Weißt du schon, ab du dieses Wochenende zu deiner Schwester fährst?”

Ich habe darüber nachgedacht und glaube dass du da ob meinst :)

Cuvânta
Cuvânta

In Romanian the expression “the more superior team” is considered a grammatical mistake, because “superior” already means the same as “the more”.

Rich
Rich

For the examples above, the English that would fit would be ‘to work out’, ‘to work it out’, ‘to have worked out’, or ‘working out’, which contrasts nicely with to ponder or reflect upon. It implies a solution is obtainable.

JEAP
JEAP

Great article, as usual.

Does it work with something like this: I überlege, dass du kürzlich 1984 gelesen hast. I think denken and/or glaube fit better in that case… it sounds doubleplusnunright to me Winston, what do you think?

Graham
Graham

Hello! Is it not also ” to give a lot of thought TO and not ON ” – this feels better to me. I could be wrong….

Graham
Graham

Apologies, your english is so good that I thought you were a native speaker………

Benj
Benj

Great explanation, thanks once again! Just a quick question, in your example, “Überleg’s dir und sag mir Bescheid.”, your translation is “Well, think about it and let me know.” However, here “dir” is included, so should that not then become “decide” or “come up with” according to the definition? Or is it still “think” because there is now an “es” splitting the two?

Bram
Bram

Mir gefällt dein 1984-Witz („synonyms are double plus good“). Machtest du das absichtlich?

AlexTheGreat
AlexTheGreat

Hi! As a newbie in Deutsch, I was searching for a good language learning source. And few days ago I accidently found your site. You are the best! The way you are describing new words is great! By this way you are not only learn by heart words but you experience this language, and its very helpful for studying.

I have question about this article: Can I use “ueberleg’ mal” or “ueberleg’ dir mal” in the meaning of phrase “Think again”?
Like here: “The weather is changing. Think again, do you still want to go hiking?”
(Maybe I made very rough example, english is not my mothertongue…)

Grusse aus Kasachstan!

Gladson
Gladson

Why did I never see this website before now?? I’m so impressed. U can count one new follower. This would definitely help me further my German.

leyarn

In Italian “more superior” (it would be “molto superiore”) sounds terrible, something that will make your elementary school teacher scream! But, at least in Rome (in Italy everyday language depends strictly on dialects… the same as German, as far as I have experienced living in Baden Wuttemberg ;)), it is definitely possible to say “più meglio”, which means “more better”…. with “meglio” being an adverb, if I remember correctly ;)

leyarn

sorry, more superior in italian is, of course, più superiore! damn German, i am forgetting my mother tongue! ;)

Marcelo
Marcelo

First of all, thanks very much for taking the time to post this. I find it really helpful.
But I have a little doubt.
I arrived to this post looking in google for “ich habe mir überlegt” after finding the phrase in a youtube easy German video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1niHU0IHxs at 0:05).
According to your explanation above, the way the expression is used in the video “Jetzt habe ich mir überlegt, was kaufen die Leute so ein?” is simply wrong, isn’t it? Or am I misinterpreting things?
Let me know.
Kind regards,
Marcelo

vardhini
vardhini

Cld you help me in horverstehen. I am finding it very difficult to follow it when it is spoken. I wld like some tips

Francis
Francis

Hallo!

First off I’ve been lurking on here for a while, this is an extremely useful website and I thank you for it. Hell maybe I’ll start one for my language, French!

Anyway, just wanted to point out one or two things :
In English, while “Come with me!” works fine, “Come with!” wouldn’t even though the German “Komm mit!” probably does work. You’d just say “Come!”.
Also, “the more superior team won” sounds wrong to me, I’d just say “the superior/best team won”.
Lastly, I don’t know is one could say “to conceive of a plan”… the “of” feels wrong.

Cheers!

alexviajero
alexviajero

This is a new Chrysler car ad (link below) airing regularly now on TV (especially during the current football playoffs). It sort of reinforces the American insecurities that our cars are inferior to the “Gold Standard,” which everyone knows are German-built cars (and rightfully so!). Anyway, they use the term “überlegene” which translates to “superior” in this ad, just as you describe in your second definition. Anyway, I laugh every time I see this ad and thought you might get a kick out of it… check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHmA_L61Rb0

alexviajero
alexviajero

Hi Emanuel: You’re absolutely right — it is daring to make an ad where Americans actually have to read subtitles, because we’re notoriously lazy about that, and most Americans won’t even watch a great movie if it is subtitled (but that is a whole other rant of mine ;-)). But, in this case, I have no doubts that the vast majority of viewers instantly know that it is German being spoken, even before the word “Autobahn” appears. “Quality cars = German engineering” is just on of those things we all just know. 25 years ago, a Volkswagen ad campaign introduced us to the word “Fahrvergnügen.” The idea was that Germans make driving their cars such a uniquely wonderful experience, that they actually have a single word to capture “the ecstasy of driving,” unlike in English. But even then, the ad was in English except for that word! This Chrysler commercial has been shown repeatedly during the football games leading up to the Superbowl (where a 30-second commercial on TV for that show costs the sponsor over a million dollars, since it is by far the most-watched live TV program in the States, and hence, reaches the largest audience of captivated viewers of any other annual televised event). And yes, with few exceptions, the notion is that “it’s not a German car, but it’s pretty good FOR AN AMERICAN car.” Haha. So, Chrysler, very much made in America, is saying “this is America’s import” as sort of an ironic play on that idea, that since a fantastic car can only be an “import”, this car is so good we can call it ‘America’s import’, even though it is clearly made right here in the good ole USA. It is just that good! (As an aside, American politicians like to make a point that they are just average Americans, who drive American cars, and not German imports like most wealthier citizens. Two years ago, Mitt Romney, who was being harmed in his campaign because he was so rich and out of touch with average Americans, tried to connect to voters by casually saying that American cars were excellent — in fact, his “wife has a couple of Cadillacs”! Of course, this backfired, because though Cadillacs are made by General Motors, they are the most expensive model, and surely most Americans cannot afford to have not only one, but two! Hahaha.) We have the same silly warnings on products now here too, (the disclaimers) and such. When you buy a product, like a pillow, that is wrapped in a plastic bag, the tag will have the warning, “Caution — do not let children play with the bag — they could suffocate”. Duh! By the way, you mentioned you don’t have a car. That is a much-discussed new cultural trend in the US now too. In my youth (I’m 55), ALL boys and young men LOVED cars. The most obsessed boys in high school were called “gear-heads.” You had groups or cliques in high… Read more »

alexviajero
alexviajero

PS. I also meant to mention that in another version of this same Chrysler ad, when the driver realizes he is not on the Autobahn, but on an American Interstate, he says “Verdammt!” But the subtitled translation says “dang it!” because “damn it” is even too strong to say on American broadcast TV (as opposed to pay TV like HBO, where it would be ok)… Yikes!

a.n.onymous
a.n.onymous

Re. earlier comments about using German in English car adverts: the advertising slogan for Audi in the UK used to be (and maybe still is?) “Vorsprung durch Technik”, untranslated. According to wikipedia, this slogan was actually used *everywhere but* the United States.

alanmarsee
alanmarsee

Ist Usedom heute in South Korea.

alanmarsee
alanmarsee

Sorry, my German keyboard was turned on. It’s used here in South Korea.

alanmarsee
alanmarsee

What is a strong link opposed to a weak link when it comes to überlegen?

Aleisha Kudrass
Aleisha Kudrass

What is the ‘an’ in your example below? I feel like it should be ‘von’ or that there should be nothing there and Strandbekleidung should be in genetiv. In this use, can ‘an’ be translated as ‘of’?

“Wie kriegen wir unsere schier unendliche Fülle an Strandbekleidung in den Kofferraum?”
“Oh das ist nicht einfach. Mal überlegen.”